Navigating Change in Higher Education

Where I work, on the George Mason University campus in Fairfax, Virginia, physical change is everywhere and seemingly endless.  I hear the hardhats hammering, feel the reverberation of jackhammers and pile drivers, see the scaffolding rising to the skies, smell the fumes of backhoes and excavators, and can almost taste the dust of demolition and construction.  Like other universities across the country, Mason is rebuilding and expanding its facilities.  A website provides project timelines, a project map, FAQs, and a planner for the project’s next two weeks.  The plans and processes governing changes in the physical plant are relatively straightforward, and information on planned changes impacting students and faculty alike is well publicized.

For change in the broader context of higher education, its policies and programs in particular, . . . well, “straightforward” does not come to mind as an apt descriptor.  As with our facilities, policy and program change is everywhere and seemingly endless.  It is part of our human and institutional nature, I guess, this [sometimes obsessive] interest in improvement, in transformation to a better state.  And there is no field, no discipline, no business that surpasses higher education in the constancy and ferocity of the passion to improve, to overcome inertia.  So relentless change it is!

But the effects of such an environment can be profound.  John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber, authors of Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions, caution us about change: “Handle the challenge of change well, and you can prosper greatly.  Handle it poorly, and you put yourself and others at risk.”  For higher education, in its state of relentless change, prosperity [read institutional prestige, higher enrollment, more research grants, etc.] and risk [read negative publicity, higher dropout level, faculty limbo and turnover, budget shortfalls, etc.] potential abound.

How, then, does higher education effectively manage change, i.e., to shape it, promote it, navigate it, and minimize attendant risks?  Leaving the impact on students for another day, here are a few practical tips that may help higher education professionals (1) to become agents of change and (2) to avoid becoming its victims.

Anchor Significant Changes in Institutional Bedrock

Let’s return to the building analogy.  Ten years ago San Francisco’s $350-million Millennium Tower, at 58 stories one of the city’s tallest condominium skyscrapers, opened.  Since then, it has sunk 17 inches and tilted 14 inches; estimates to retrofit it range from $200 to $500 million.  Structural engineers concluded that it is sinking and tilting at this alarming rate because the foundation was not built on bedrock.  Like buildings, major changes need to be anchored in bedrock, institutional bedrock.  For universities, bedrock is the amalgamation of institutional values, culture, heritage, traditions, mission, vision, and other essential attributes.  When change is anchored into this solid, load-bearing, stable amalgamation, it will likely be change worth accomplishing, change easily understood, change receptive to the majority of constituencies and stakeholders.

Understand the Why and More

When significant change arises, superficial explanation is simply not enough.  For the university executives driving the change, the imperative is to explain the why, who, what, where, when, and how.  Yes, these are the practical approaches of ethicists, philosophers, and journalists, but for major proposed policy and program changes each merits explanation, if not justification.  Focusing on the practical provides employees reassurance that they will receive the continued support they need throughout the change implementation.

When significant change arises, superficial awareness is simply not enough.  For affected university professionals, the obligation is to develop a deeper understanding of the change. How did we get to this decision?  Why now?  Was this a top-down decision, or one informed by key constituents?  How will this change impact my day-to-day job duties?  Is the change anchored in institutional bedrock?  It is incumbent on those who are affected to invest the time to understand the change and to reach out to get answers.

Know your Audience

My field is Arts Management, which is essentially the business management side of the performing and visual arts.  For artists, who have careers that span the breadth of public, private, non-profit, and self-employed occupations and who work in countless venues, we in Arts Management preach a common theme – Know your audience!  For executives, standing committees, ad hoc bodies, or anyone promoting significant change in higher education, the same advice merits your attention and adoption – Know your audience!

The Mason IT department knows its audience.  Earlier this year it used catchy messaging to promote university-wide two-factor authentication to strengthen IT security:  “This is good (eggs).  This is better (eggs + bacon).   Some things are just #better2ogether.”  Get to know your audience; use clever messaging; tell a story.

Foster a Sense of Ownership

Build a feedback mechanism throughout the change implementation so affected parties can have a voice and feel that you are hearing them.  Be meaningful when you respond to the feedback and address concerns head-on.  If you anchor the change in institutional bedrock and genuinely listen to responses, you will promote acceptance and foster a sense of ownership.  Visibly publicize and celebrate milestones to keep momentum going so constituents can see the path ahead and appreciate the progress achieved.  Empower others to further change implementation and seek support over the long haul, not just the short term.

Too Much Change for Too Long . . .

Will put a hole in your pocket is what comes to mind.  Actually, it is:  Too much change for too long will shred institutional fabric.  We live in a world where change is the rule, not the exception.  Apps and software seem to need weekly updates, and change for change’s sake seems to be the norm.  We can embrace a lot of change, but we also need continuity and stability because most change is inherently destabilizing and resource-intensive.  Anchoring in bedrock will eliminate the flavors of the day and assure us that the change is indeed needed and worthy of implementation.

Pardon me, but I must leave.  But I will have to change first.

*Opinions expressed by Campus Consortium Contributors are their own.

About the Author

Nicole Springer is an educator, musician, and arts advocate.  She is the Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs and Assistant Director, Arts Management Undergraduate Studies within the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University.

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